The Conway Police Department’s new automatic license plate recognition unit has "read" more than 116,000 license plates since it was installed in a CPD patrol car in May.

The unit, called a Police Automatic License Plate Recognition Graphical Interface System (PAGIS), is linked to Arkansas Crime Information Center/National Crime Information Center (ACIC/NCIC), and automatically cross references license plate numbers with recorded stolen vehicles/license plates, sex offenders, parolees and probationers.

There have been startup problems with the system. PAGIS has been down a few times since its inception as a result of "the occasional software crash" or a failure of one of the system’s several cameras, according to CPD public information officer Sharen Carter. Still, when it’s worked, it’s proven capable of "reading" as many as 4,143 license plates per day. So far, PAGIS has had 12 "hits" for license plates linked to parole/probation violators or stolen vehicles. Most of these "hits" have resulted in arrests, Carter said.

The Conway City Council voted in December to buy the unit at a cost of $29,205 — close to the cost of a new patrol car. Four patrolmen have been trained to operate the system, and the PAGIS-equipped patrol car is being driven almost around-the-clock, though the officers still must respond to calls as they normally would and can’t dedicate themselves to "trawling" for errant license plates.

PAGIS works through an array of cameras mounted atop and at the rear of the patrol car which send images to a laptop computer mounted inside the vehicle, which uses image recognition software to identify the shape of a license plate and the characters on it. The officer is presented with a still image of passing vehicles and a smaller image of the license plate and the numbers and letters the software has interpreted from the image. If the license plate is linked with an offense, the officer is given a visual and audible alert.

The system isn’t perfect. The number recognition software makes an occasional mistake, Carter said, such as identifying a "3" as an "8" or an "A" as a "R," though it often "corrects" itself as the patrol car’s orientation to the other vehicle changes in traffic. The system also cannot recognize state license plates. For example, if Iowa license plate 123 ABC was reported stolen, license plates ABC 123 registerd to every state would register as a PAGIS "hit," and the officer would have to confirm that the license plate was from the appropriate state.

Still, it works well enough that an officer passing a line of stopped traffic or driving slowly through a shopping center parking lot can "read" the license plate of almost every car he or she passes and log the license plate number, along with the time, location and a still image of the vehicle.

Conway Chief of Police A. J. Gary said to the Conway City Council in December that the system could also be of use after-the-fact when investigators are dealing with a criminal incident, as the system logs the license plate and photos of vehicles in a given area at a given time.

The city’s Information Technology Department is working to broaden PAGIS’ horizons. In the near future, PAGIS will be linked to CPD’s warrants database and the unit will alert officers to vehicles registered to persons with outstanding warrants or unpaid fines, Carter said, greatly increasing its use to the department by bringing absconders back into the realm of the courts and netting more unpaid fines and fees.

Carter said she hoped this added capability would send a message to citizens to address their outstanding legal issues at a time that would be convenient to them, rather than at a time of fate’s and CPD’s choosing.

"Take care of your warrants and then you won’t have anything to worry about," she said.